Stories of Hope

Katherine and Laurell, living donor & recipient

Living donor Katherine and donor kidney recipient Laurell

Fueled by optimism and a natural abundance of energy, Laurell has always been a go-getter. The little sister of four older brothers — Dan, Fred, Hugh and Jack — Laurell has shared many wonderful experiences with her family over the years. Unfortunately, she and her family have also shared something not so wonderful: a propensity for a life-threatening genetic kidney disease.

Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is an inherited disorder that passes from parents to children through genes, damaging the kidneys and potentially leading to kidney failure. Diagnosed with PKD in 1988 at the age of 26, Laurell stayed positive and made a conscious effort to try to keep moving forward with life. Over the next nine years, she saw a PKD specialist on a regular basis, while maintaining a fulltime job and giving birth to her daughter Alyssa — all without incident. Then, quite suddenly, Laurell began feeling terrible.

A visit to the doctor in 2007 revealed that Laurell’s blood pressure was dangerously high and that her kidneys were functioning at just 40 percent. Laurell’s doctors continued to monitor her condition, but one year later, her rapidly declining health left Laurell exhausted all the time.

Mowing the lawn became too much, and walking for exercise was no longer an option. Over the next several years, Laurell’s tiredness kept increasing as her kidney function continued decreasing — eventually dropping to only 5 percent. At that point, even simple tasks like going to the grocery store left her breathless and needing a nap afterward. Laurell could do little more than go from the couch to the bed and back each a day.

“I was able to fight back,” says Laurell, “but I had to sleep, sleep, sleep.”

Running out of options and low on hope, Laurell was listed for a kidney on the national transplant waiting list in December 2012, and began dialysis treatments shortly thereafter. Laurell tried her best not to let her condition impact daily life, but it wasn’t easy. On the day of her daughter’s high school graduation, Laurell was so sick that nurses wanted to send her to the hospital by ambulance, but she refused. Laurell could barely get out of bed to put on a dress, but she was determined to be there when Alyssa received her diploma, and she made it.

As Laurell was waiting to receive the call that a deceased donor had donated a matching kidney, she received a different call. A woman whom she had never met, living many miles away, wanted to give Laurell one of her kidneys.

Katherine was running a race in support of organ, eye and tissue donation with her best friend Julie in South Carolina when she spotted an older gentleman ahead of her wearing a sign declaring that he was running in honor of his heart donor. It was a rainy day and Katherine, who wasn’t much of a runner, wasn’t feeling very motivated. Seeing that man running with his new heart gave Katherine the inspiration she needed to keep going and finish the race. That inspiration also sparked thoughts of something else that lingered with Katherine long after the race was over: she wanted to learn about living donation.

Katherine asked Julie, who had donated one of her own kidneys to her husband (Laurell’s older brother) Dan, about her living donation experience. They also discussed what it meant that Laurell was currently waiting for a kidney. Later, Katherine found that Laurell was still on her mind. She had a strong feeling that she was supposed to do something to help.

Katherine had previously thought that she might be willing to donate a kidney to someone one day, but it had never occurred to her that it might be to someone she didn’t know. On top of that, as a mom of two young sons just about to embark on a new career as a middle school science teacher that fall, the timing for living donation certainly wasn’t ideal. Despite this, Katherine took action and asked Julie about Laurell’s blood type to see if she was a match. Once it was confirmed that she was, Katherine knew what she had to do. She picked up the phone in South Carolina and reached out to Laurell in Texas to introduce herself — and offer her a kidney.

* * *

Laurell and Katherine met for the first time at the airport in Texas and shared a meaningful embrace. There were tears and many thank-yous from Laurell and her husband, who were in awe of Katherine’s generosity. Then, after undergoing thorough testing and analysis in preparation for the upcoming transplant, Katherine came back to Texas one more time in June to give Laurell a kidney.

“When I woke up after the transplant,” remembers Laurell, “my family was amazed. I had color in my face again. I didn’t look like a cadaver anymore.”

Not only did Laurell instantly look better, she was feeling remarkably better too. Upon returning home from the hospital just three days later, Laurell got out of the car and began walking up and down the street in her neighborhood. Just two weeks after that, Laurell was on a plane to help her daughter move into her dorm for her freshman year at college.

“Having missed many big parts of my daughter’s life due to my illness, it meant so much to me to be there to help her and decorate,” says Laurell. “My transplant meant that I did not have to miss another milestone.”

As for Katherine, her husband’s unwavering support of her decision to donate and his caring for their children while she was away meant that the process went as smoothly as possible for everyone. After Katherine’s initial recovery from surgery in Texas, she went home to South Carolina and immediately left for a family beach vacation. Less than two weeks later, Katherine was present on the first day of school to begin her new teaching job.

Katherine says she feels “totally normal” since donating, and it shows in the full life that she leads. In addition to teaching and raising her sons, Katherine has joined a salsa dancing performance group and ran her first half-marathon less than a year after donating her kidney to Laurell.

“It can be done, no matter how crazy life is,” Katherine says emphatically. “This is someone’s life… you gain so much more than you lose.”

Today, Laurell continues to thrive with her renewed energy and strength. She regularly goes to the gym, runs a charitable foundation, and actively volunteers to encourage people to register as donors — and to also consider becoming living donors.

Laurell and Katherine formed a powerful connection through their donation and transplantation experience. The two women communicate regularly to this day. Laurell says that she doesn’t think she would be alive without Katherine, and she credits Katherine with saving not only her life with her generous gift, but also saving Laurell’s family.

“Because of Katherine, we are planning for life again,” says Laurell. “Katherine is a beautiful soul.”

How to Start the Process

To help someone through living donation, talk to him or her and the transplant program where the person is listed. To be a non-directed living donor, contact a transplant center to find out if they have this type of donation program.